Detective programs have been a permanent presence on American television, and one way to understand them is to recognize that--like their more numerous siblings, the police shows--their development enacts in miniature many aspects of the larger history of the medium as a whole. They begin as live programs, recycling prose fiction, movies and radio shows, the earliest of them such as Man Against Crime (1949-56, CBS, NBC, Dumont) and Martin Kane, Private Eye (1949-54, NBC) conceived and produced in New York City by advertising agencies. Erik Barnouw's history of American broadcasting discloses that the tobacco sponsors of Man Against Crime prohibited fires and coughing from all scripts to avoid negative associations with their product; the book also describes the technical and narrative crudity of these early programs. The length of radio episodes could be gauged accurately by counting the words in the script, but the duration of live action on TV was unpredictable, varying treacherously from rehearsal to actual broadcast. To solve this problem, Barnouw writes, every episode of Man Against Crime ended with a search that the hero (played by Ralph Bellamy) could prolong or shorten depending on the time available.

Even the earliest phase detective shows can be subdivided into recognizable subgenres. Man Against Crime and Martin Kane are simple versions of the hard boiled private eye, a figure invented in the 1920s in stories and novels by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and reincarnated in the movies of Humphrey Bogart and other tough guy actors. Other 1950s series recycle detectives in the cerebral, puzzle-solving tradition of Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and Agatha Christie. The character Holmes makes his first appearance on American television in 1954 in a syndicated filmed series that lasts only a single season. Ellery Queen, an American Sherlock Holmes, first appearing in a cycle of popular novels beginning in 1929, appears on radio a decade later in a long-running weekly program, and on television in 1950 in a live series, The Adventures of Ellery Queen (1950-51, Dumont; 1951-52, ABC). This is the first of four series devoted to Ellery Queen, a mystery writer and amateur detective who is the direct inspiration for Angela Lansbury's long-running character in Murder, She Wrote (1984-96, CBS). The classic whodunit pleasures of Ellery Queen--as well as its relative indifference to social or psychological realism--are crystallized in its structure: Queen's adventures in all media usually conclude with a summary of the story's clues and a challenge to the reader or viewer to solve the mystery before Ellery himself supplies the answer in the epilogue.

A third subgenre of the detective story also makes an early appearance in the new medium. A hybrid of screwball comedy and mystery, this format usually centers on the adventures of a married or romantically entangled couple, amateurs in detection who are often distracted in the face of villainy and mortal danger by their own erotically-charged quarrels. Examples: Boston Blackie (1951-53, syndicated), Mr. and Mrs. North (1952-53, CBS; 1954, NBC) and, a bit later, The Thin Man (1957-59, NBC). Each of these escapist half-comedies placed more emphasis on interpersonal badinage than on the realities of urban crime, although the social whirl of the modern city was often a background in all three series.

Like most television detectives of the 1950s, these protagonists had originated in older media. A durable embodiment of disreputable and elegant self-reliance, Blackie first appears in American magazine stories at the turn of the century, a jewel thief who moves easily in high society and has served time in prison but now prevents crime instead of committing it. Surreptitious and resilient, he turns up in silent films and reappears in sound movies and on radio in the 1940s. Still quick with a wisecrack, he is more respectable in his TV incarnation than his prototypes in the older media, according to several commentators, and aided by a girlfriend named Mary and a dog named Whitey, is said to have been remodeled in the image of the movie version of Nick Charles, hero of The Thin Man, who is also in partnership with a woman and a dog.

Mr. and Mrs. North has a similar mixed-media ancestry, originating in prose fiction in 1940 by a writing couple, Richard and Frances Lockridge; in the very next year appears as a Broadway play, a Hollywood movie starring Gracie Allen as Mrs. North, and--most durably--in a weekly radio series that runs on CBS and later NBC until 1956, outlasting the TV series to which it gave rise. Gracie Allen's presence in this catalogue is a decisive clue to the stereotype of the lovably addled female on which Mr. and Mrs. North relies.

No such stereotype mars The Thin Man, but despite an energetic performance by Phyllis Kirk as Nora, the TV version is a mere derivative echo of its famous predecessors, Hammett's 1940 novel and, especially, the series of five MGM movies starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles (1934, 1936, 1939, 1941, 1944). The Kirk character hints at what comes across with charming serious authority in Myrna Loy's definitive Nora: unlike her imitators and competitors, this woman is no mere sidekick but her detective husband's true moral and intellectual equal--a rare female in this masculine genre.

Following the success of I Love Lucy (1951-61, CBS) and Dragnet (1952-59; revived, 1967-70, NBC), both filmed in Hollywood, production shifts to film and to the West Coast, and the economic structure of the new medium is stabilized: production companies sell programs to the networks, which peddle commercial slots to advertisers who have no direct creative control over programming. The standard format for crime shows changes from thirty minutes to an hour in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and crime series begin to exhibit a richer audio-visual texture, learning to exploit such defining features of television as its reduced visual field and the mandatory commercial interruptions.

Such an embrace of some of television's distinctive features surely helps to explain the success of the Raymond Burr Perry Mason (1957-66, CBS), one of the first TV series to achieve greater complexity--and popularity--than the books and radio episodes from which it derives. An American version of the whodunit, the program is a kind of primer on the uses and gratifications of genre formulas. Both a courtroom melodrama and a detective story, its appeal to viewers and its power as drama are grounded in TV-specific features. Its highly segmented narrative structure, for example, exploits the commercial interruptions, organizing the plot in predictable units that offer viewers the simultaneous pleasures of recognizable variations (different performers, settings, motives, etc.) within a familiar, orderly pattern. Every episode begins with a mini-drama, establishing a roster of plausible suspects for the murder in which it culminates. Every episode dramatizes the arrest and imprisonment of Perry's client, known to be innocent by the very fact that Perry has taken on the defense. The second half-hour of every episode is always a courtroom trial in which Perry's deductive genius and his brilliance in cross examination combine to force a confession from the real murderer. Every episode contains an explanatory epilogue, often at table in a restaurant or other convivial space signifying the restoration of normality and order, in which Perry discloses the chain of reasoning that led him to the truth. This intensification of the structural constraints inherent in the format of the weekly series strengthens or enables what must be called the mythic or ritual content of Perry Mason: an endlessly renewing drama of murder, justice perverted, justice redeemed.

The very title sequence of Perry Mason signals something of the way TV drama by the late 1950s had begun to develop an appropriately smallened audio-visual vocabulary: a confident, swooping camera glides through a courtroom to a close-up of the hero, its graceful dipping motion synchronized with the rhythms of Fred Steiner's dramatic theme music.

Similar audio-visual effects are intermittently present in two notable series created by Blake Edwards, Richard Diamond, Private Detective (1957-60, CBS, NBC) and Peter Gunn (1958-61, NBC, ABC), both of which center on wise-acre heroes whose sexual bravado is more important to their appeal than their brains or their marksmanship. Richard Diamond's place in TV history is secured by two of its cast members: the protagonist was played by a young David Janssen, smooth-faced, unfurtive and just learning to mumble, in rehearsal for his memorable work in The Fugitive (1963-67, ABC) and Harry O (1974-76, ABC); and the role of Diamond's throaty secretary belonged briefly in 1959 to Mary Tyler Moore, who received no billing in the credits and, in keeping with the macho objectification of women common in detective mythology, was shown on camera only from the waist down.

Especially in its music, Peter Gunn was a more compelling program than Richard Diamond, though its plots were reductive and often as violent as those of The Untouchables (1959-64, ABC), notorious even in its own day for its surfeit of murder. Henry Mancini's original jazz variations--later collected in two best-selling albums--made an elegant, haunting undersong for the show's moody, film-noirish editing and camera work. Gunn himself, portrayed in a minimalist physical style by Craig Stevens, often repaired to a nightclub called "Mother's" where his girlfriend Edie Hunt (Lola Albright) sang jazz for a living.

Peter Gunn had a genuine individuality, but its half-hour episodes, photographed in black and white, must have seemed obsolete by the end of the decade. Hour-long series, shot in glossy, high key color in exotic locales and filled with physical action became the standard during the 1960s. In a sense this trend was part of the industry project of finding ways to adapt action-adventure material to the exigencies of the small screen. Car chases, acrobatic action were not impossible on television, though such things could never be as riveting here as in the movies. But artful editing and clever camera placement--emphasizing action in depth that moved toward or away from the camera and avoided trajectories that ran across the screen into its confining borders--could create plausibly exciting effects. Glossy production values, then, often as an end in themselves, set the tone for most TV detectives of the 1960s.

One of the founding programs in this gloss and glamour mode was 77 Sunset Strip (1958-64, ABC), produced by Warner Brothers and created by Roy Huggins from his own 1946 novel. The theme music and lyrics for the show aimed for a tone of jivey, youthful "cool" and included the sound of snapping fingers. The show appealed strongly to younger viewers, primarily through the character of a jive-talking parking lot attendant called "Kookie" (Edd Byrnes), who was perpetually combing his luxuriant wavy hair and trying to persuade the detective heroes, played by Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., and Roger Smith, to let him work on their investigations. The series title named the agency's upscale Hollywood address, but many episodes required travel to exotic foreign locales where the camera could ogle wealth and pulchritude. Roger Smith wrote and directed the most memorable episode of the series, "The Silent Caper" (first telecast 3 June 1960), in which the hero learns about a mob kidnapping from newspaper headlines in the opening sequence and proceeds to rescue the distressed damsel in a series of heroic improvisations, the entire adventure unfolding without a single line of dialogue.

In this period of what might be called technical exploration, the private eye genre, like other forms of action- adventure, remains essentially plot-driven, and despite the fact that the protagonist returns each week for new adventures, every episode remains self-contained, void of any memory of prior episodes. Often effective visually but superficial in content, some of these programs even differentiated their heroes by strangely external and implausible attributes. Cannon (1971-76, CBS), played by William Conrad, was balding and fat, but his excessive weight and his fittingly cumbersome Lincoln Continental automobile did not noticeably inhibit his script-writers, who provided fisticuffs and races by foot and by vehicle sufficient to challenge an Olympic athlete or Grand Prix driver. Even more implausibly, James Franciscus's Longstreet (1971-72, ABC), was blind, and brought his seeing eye dog and a special electronic cane to all investigations.

Mannix (1967-75, CBS) was perhaps the representative private eye of the era. Played by the rugged and athletic Mike Connors, Mannix was not physically challenged, but one might be tempted to doubt his brainpower, for he was quick to the punch and seemed to conduct most of his investigations by assault and battery.

Finally, in its third or "mature" stage--roughly corresponding to the mid 1970s and beyond--the private eye series combines the visual subtlety achieved over more than twenty-five years of such programming with a new complexity in content. The best detective shows develop a memory, the hero's prior adventures bear upon his current ones and characters from earlier episodes or seasons reappear, adding complexity to themes and relationships. In the richest such programs character, not violent action, drives the story, and the subject matter itself engages reality more seriously and topically than the muscle-flexing violence of earlier shows had generally allowed.



Honey West

Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer

77 Sunset Strip


Harry O (1974-76, ABC) and The Rockford Files (1974-80, NBC) are the primary examples of these principles of accretion and refinement. Equivalent instances among police shows are Police Story (1973-77, NBC), Hill Street Blues (1981-87, NBC), NYPD. Blue (1993- ), Law and Order (1990- ) and Homicide (1993-99). But a significant minority of other detective series beginning in the 1970s and after also achieve new levels of excellence and imaginative energy, combining memorable acting with elegant cinematography and, often, superior writing to become, at the least, provocative entertainment. A short list of these programs:

Such programs include Columbo (1971-77, NBC; continuing as an occasional TV- movie), technically a policeman but in spirit one of American television's wittiest variations on the mystery-puzzle format--the detective as triumphant (and dogged) rationalist as well as working class avenger. Tenafly (1973-74, NBC), was a short-lived but thoughtful series centered on a black private eye, played by James McEachin, whose gentleness and husbandly decency undermine many media stereotypes. Magnum, PI (1980-88, CBS) starred Tom Sellek as an engaging and self-deprecating Vietnam veteran, living in the guest cottage on a picturesque estate in an even more picturesque Hawaii. Magnum's character deepens as the series continues, and some episodes explore the show's relation to its detective-story ancestry with modesty and wit. Moonlighting (1985-89, ABC) was a frequently brilliant, though also abrasive post-modern variation on the Thin Man formula, with Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd, in fighting trim, trading insults and cracking wise through the run of the series.

Harry O and Rockford remain the most compelling private detectives in television history. Both series are the work of writers, directors and producers with long experience in the crime genre and a specific history of collaboration with their stars. Janssen's creative ensemble included Howard Rodman, creator of the show and writer of the two pilot films that led to the series, producer-director Jerry Thorpe, directors Paul Wendkos, Richard Lang, Jerry London; and writers Michael Sloan, Robert C. Dennis, Stephen Kandel, and Robert Dozier. Garner's collaborators included his former agent-turned-executive producer Meta Rosenberg and such TV veterans as Roy Huggins, Stephen J. Cannell, David Chase, Juanita Bartlett, and Charles Floyd Johnson, some of whom had worked with him in movies and in his earliest jobs in television.

Anti-heroic in tone, both series draw creatively on their stars' previous work and also reflect something of the legacy of the anti-war movement and the broad social turmoil of the late 1960s and early 19070s. In a way both, Harry and Rockford are adult drop-outs, living unpretentiously along the beaches of southern California. (Rockford's minimal domicile is actually a mobile home.) But both protagonists are a generation older than the youthful protesters of that era, and they project a wariness and skepticism that seem to originate not in naiveté or adolescent discontent but in part in the muddles, disillusionments, even the physical humiliations of reach middle age.

Janssen's Orwell especially is a figure of pain and diminished expectations, divorced and solitary, living on a disability pension from the San Diego police department. Fitting himself with rueful slowness into his broken-down toy of a sports car, middle aged and sagging like its owner, or stiffly climbing the wooden steps of his rickety beach house, he seems a subversively modest hero, the fugitive grown older and wiser.

Less melancholy and wincing than Harry Orwell, Rockford is unpretentious and decent, equally post-heroic, probably the only TV detective to spend more time nursing his own injuries than inflicting them on others. Both Rockford and Orwell are great wheedlers, more likely to coddle or flatter information out of their sources than to threaten them. "Why should I answer you?" asks an officious bureaucrat in one episode of Harry O. Janssen's response is characteristic, a half-audible mumble, delayed for a moment as he settles on the edge of the bureaucrat's desk: "Because my feet hurt?"

Rockford is the richer, more various and more playful text, partly because it had the advantage of lasting six years, while Harry O was canceled abruptly after its second season despite reasonably strong ratings, possibly a casualty of the crescendo of complaints against media violence that developed in the mid 1970s. Like the police series that appear in the same "late" period of the network era, Rockford is something of a hybrid, combining elements of comedy and the daytime continuing serial with the private eye format. Though Rockford's adventures are self- contained, usually concluding within the confines of a single episode, his father "Rocky" (Noah Beery) and a wide circle of friends and professional colleagues are recurring characters, and the momentum of their lives as well as their unstable, shifting intimacy with Rockford himself deepen and complicate the program. The recurring women characters in Rockford--Jim's tough, competent lawyer Beth Davenport (Gretchen Corbett); the blind psychologist Megan Dougherty (Kathryn Harrold), a client who becomes Jim's lover; and Rita Capkovic (Rita Moreno), a resilient, loquacious prostitute who enlists Rockford's help in changing her life--exhibit qualities of intelligence, moral courage and independence rare in women characters in our popular culture and virtually non-existent in the molls and dolls of detective stories.

Valuable as a corrective to the still widespread notion that TV programs and especially crime shows are interchangeable and entirely ephemeral, the essentially internal history proposed here must be complicated and supplemented by other perspectives. Recent scholarship on popular culture would suggest in the broadest sense the TV detective show is part of a larger cultural project in which the conventions of genre function in part as enabling devices, their reassuring familiarity licensing an exploration of topics that might otherwise be too disturbing or threatening to acknowledge or discuss openly. On this view all television programs, and particularly the prime time genres, collectively sustain an open-ended, ongoing conversation about the nature of American culture, about our values and the norms of social life. Cop and private eye shows are fables of justice, heroism and deviancy, symbolically or imaginatively "policing" the unstable boundaries that define public or consensus ideas about crime, urban life, gender norms, the health or sickness of our institutions. The progression, that is, from Dragnet to Hill Street Blues discloses aspects of a social history of our society. But this is not a simple affirmation of such stories, nor of some comforting progress-myth. For our genre texts carry and rehearse and diffuse the lies, the prejudices and self-delusions of our society as well as its ideals. Harry 0 and Rockford share the prime time schedule with Mannix and Charlie's Angels (1976-81, ABC). Inevitably ambivalent, in conflict with themselves, genre stories reflect and embody cultural divisions.

A chief virtue, then, of television's most fundamental of all programs, the series, is precisely that it is continuing, theoretically endless. In this the TV series embodies a great and useful truth: that culture itself is a process, a shifting, unequal, endless contention among traditional and emerging forces. -David Thorburn


Barnouw, Erik. The Image Empire. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.

Brooks, Tim, and Earle Marsh. The Complete Directory To Prime Time Network TV Shows, 1946-Present. New York: Ballantine, 1979; 3rd edition, 1985.

Gianakos, Larry James. Television Drama Series Programming: A Comprehensive Chronicle, 1959-1975. Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow, 1978.

Kerr, Paul. "Watching the Detectives." Primetime Magazine (London), July 1981.

McNeil, Alex. Total Television. New York: Penguin, 1984.

Meyers, Richard. TV Detectives. San Diego, California: A.S.Barnes, 1981.

Norden, Martin F. "The Detective Show." In, Rose, Brian G., editor. TV Genres: A Handbook and Reference Guide. Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood, 1985.

Tibballs, Geoff. The Boxtree Encyclopedia of TV Detectives. London: Boxtree, 1992.

Thorburn, David. "Is TV Acting A Distinctive Art Form?" The New York Times, 14 August 1977.


See also Cannell, Steven; Charlie's Angels; Garner, James; Huggins, Roy; Magnum, P.I.; Miss Marple; Moonlighting; The Name of the Game; NBC Mystery Movie; Perry Mason; Peter Gunn; The Rockford Files; Sherlock Holmes; The Singing Detective